Not-for-profit Leadership Transition Planning

Leadership transition planning for any organization is a challenge. For mission-driven organizations, these transitions can be even more daunting, as planning relies on the leadership of Executive Directors who play a number of critical roles—from fundraiser, external thought leader, internal staff manager and marketer of the organization.

Finding the right person to lead a not-for-profit organization requires careful consideration of the current organizational circumstances, such as:

  • Is the organization high-performing and consistently meeting its goals?
  • Are funds and/or memberships on a downward trend?
  • Is the leader a beloved long-term advocate for the mission of the organization?
  • Was the Executive Director involuntarily removed by the Board?
  • Is the organization in the midst of a new chapter of its strategic plan?

Identifying the best fit also requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including selected members of the Board of Directors, supporting foundations and funders, as well as key internal staff members. Each participant will have the opportunity to play a unique role and are encouraged to consider the current state and future needs of the organization.

While considerable effort is typically applied to the executive search process, many organizations fail to apply the same level of attention to the actual leadership transition. This is where a transition plan plays a critical role in assuring the long-term success of the organization and its new leader.

This task becomes less overwhelming when broken into key components:

  • Establish a Detailed 120-Day Transition Plan – As simple as this sounds, creating a detailed plan of key introductions, meetings, conferences and other events is crucial in providing the new leader with the opportunity to establish and nurture key relationships. Constructing a plan provides the opportunity for key stakeholders, such as Board members, to offer input and invest in the success of the new leader. A thorough and organized plan also allows the new Executive Director to visualize their progress and feel a sense of preparedness when diving into the chaos of a new position.
  • Listen to Gather Facts and Information – A new leader will need to quickly become
    familiar with important financial, cultural, organizational, political and historical information regarding the not-for-profit. Prepare a list of questions and talking points in advance during key introductions to make the most of a busy schedule. Encourage the Executive Director to listen carefully and ask probing questions to learn as much about the organization as possible. Asking for advice and input goes a long way to nurturing relationships and buy-in for the long-term.
  • Set Realistic Short-Term Transition Goals – Another significant (but easily overlooked) element to transition planning is to establish realistic short-term goals. These goals should be a mix of three to five quantitative and qualitative items that are established with resounding support from the Board of Directors. Transition goals may range from securing grant funds, establishing relationships or scheduling keynote speaking opportunities. These goals should reflect the current, short and long-term needs of the organization.
  • Chart a Course – New Executive Directors are encouraged to very carefully gauge the appropriate time to declare their vision and goals for the organization. While some new leaders may feel that they need to assertively establish a game plan for the future, others may choose to bide their time. Charting a new course for the organization should not be bound to the leadership style of the new Executive Director. Rather, the state of the organization should be the main driver for declaring a new agenda. For example, if an organization is in the midst of a fiscal or compliance crisis, leaders should move rapidly to redirect the organization. If the leader is succeeding a long tenured, well respected leader (or helped shape the current strategic plan), there is typically a bit more time to establish the next phase of the organization.

Leadership transitions are an opportunity to drive change, bring much needed stability, infuse energy into a stagnant organization, course-correct long-standing organizational issues, continue legacies or enter a new phase of history. The opportunities and
challenges that a new leader faces as they step into their role can be exciting yet overwhelming. A well thought out plan involves key stakeholders and provides a roadmap for success.


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